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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1998 Pazz & Jop: La-Di-Da-Di-Di? Or La-Di-Da-Di-Da?

The 25th or 26th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the most closely contested since 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. held off Prince’s Purple Rain in another race between rock-solid Americana and visionary funk. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as future Newt Gingrich revolutionary Sonny Bono put it in 1967: “La-di-da-di-di/La-di-da-di-da.” The beat does go on: stubbornly, intractably, the racial polarization that America’s popular music is thought to heal and subsume rises up in new convolutions. Yet God knows the beat changes as well. Recall, for instance, the rhythmic profiles of those classic albums, Springsteen busting loose from his four-square whomp into what was nevertheless only a kickier arena-rock beat (accommodating — were you there? — a dance remix), while Prince showed Uncle Jam and everyone else how a funk band might play rock music. Do their beats — each of which happens to derive from disco ideas about drum sound — go on?

Fact is, neither Lucinda Williams’s upset winner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, nor Lauryn Hill’s inspirational runner-up, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is nearly as unrelenting as Bruce and Prince’s benchmarks — and neither are our matched three and four, a rock and roll record Bob Dylan cut 32 years ago and a folk-rock record his godfather had in his head long before that. No matter how it was heard by the folk fans Dylan was “betraying” (riling up?), Live 1966 isn’t “fucking loud” even by the timid standards of the time. It’s on the go and ready for anything, powered up to move a crowd or audience but not — unlike Bruce and Prince — a populace or mass. One great thing about Mermaid Avenue is the way Wilco’s beats re-create the unkempt spontaneous combustion of Dylan’s folk-rock as an ingrained commitment — just as it’s the triumph of Williams’s blues/country to simulate spontaneity itself, a delicate trick she risks drowning in a rhythmic strategy that muffles her old arena-ready snare but not the big bad beat. Hill’s soft flow counteracts the hardcore thrust that’s claimed blackness for years, recapturing and redefining a racial present by reviving and reconstituting a racial past. Yet despite what roots aesthetes and pop-rap utopians might hope, none of these developments equals “progress.”

Last year, our winner was Time Out of Mind, in which Dylan realized his old dream of writing songs so simple-sounding you could have sworn they’d been there forever. But we also homed in on twin “pop events,” as I waggishly designated not just Hanson’s “MMMBop” atop our singles chart but Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music atop reissues. Taking a cue from inveterate Pazz & Jop kidder Chuck Eddy (who became the Voice’s new music editor just as 1998’s ballots were being inputted), I even suggested that Hanson’s Okie fluke was in some respects an heir to many of the oddities Smith canonized into a folk and eventually rock tradition. And I offered but one pronunciamento: “a terrible year for the rock ‘vanguard.’ ”

In 1998, all this came to pass. While our poll certified traditionalist art every bit as committed as Time Out of Mind — or as artist-of-the-decade PJ Harvey’s concert-ready seventh-place Is This Desire? — the “vanguard” vaporized. Pronunciamento or no pronunciamento, 1997’s top 10 had room for proven noizetoonists Pavement and Yo La Tengo, sample-delicate transnationals Björk and Cornershop, indelibly punk Sleater-Kinney and incorrigibly prog Radiohead (now regarded in Britain as potential challengers to the greatest rock and roller of all time — you know, David Bowie). In 1998, with alt mopeburger Elliott Smith convincing the machers at DreamWorks he could be the Beatles, the closest the top 10 came to paradigm shifters was Air and Rufus Wainwright, whose very different projects mine the nonrock past to reconstitute schlock, kitsch, and the masterpieces of Western civilization. And mmmpop’s playful synthesis of past and future was rejected out of hand: although Hansons-with-penises Next and the Backstreet Boys were hot stuff on Billboard’s singles chart, they didn’t get near ours.

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But I’ve been avoiding something. Not black music, not yet, because this year hip hop includes Rolling Stone artists-of-the-year the Beastie Boys, who came in ninth with their first rap album in nearly a decade — and their best album in just as long, according to me if not Pazz & Joppers, who voted 1992’s guitar move Check Your Head fifth. Fact is, I admired Hello Nasty’s beat-driven, old-school/new-internationalist avant-pastiche more than the two hip hop amalgams that topped it. But given the demographic deficiencies of the 496 critics in our largest electorate ever, it’s striking that our respondents preferred not just Spin artist-of-the-year and prepoll favorite Hill but the one top-10 finisher no one was handicapping 12 months ago: Atlanta’s OutKast.

In an exciting year for most critics who were at all proactive about rap — a professional (and spiritual) achievement that remains beyond way too many of them — the desire for a consensus album that wasn’t the pop-certified Miseducation boosted Dre and Big Boi, regional role models whose two previous releases attracted little outside notice. Coastally, New York maintained its dominance, from old classicists Gang Starr to new classicists Black Star, from Hooksta Jay-Z to 67th-place Bigsta-not-Punsta Big Punisher. But there was a bigger reason rap whupped rock commercially (again) in ’98: the Dirty South took it to the cleaners. The behemoth was No Limit’s New Orleans thump-and-thug factory, which put a phenomenal 27 albums on Billboard’s r&b chart (Def Jam had 18, Bad Boy nine, no major more than 12). Laying minimal syncopation beneath minimal socialization and no more liberal with promos than with anything else, No Limit amassed three mentions total, but a precursor of its blackstrap flow got much respect: the sticky muck where Organized Noize root OutKast and 63rd-place Goodie Mob. OutKast’s live slow jams are basically an evolved G-funk with denser instrumental cross-talk, no less street for putting organ rumble or soundtrack keyb where the eerie tweedle used to be. But their Southernness signifies, evoking Booker T., endless Gregg Allman ballads, humid afternoons with horseflies droning over the hog wallow.

Catch is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hog wallow, certainly not in the South, and I doubt many OutKast voters have either. For Northern whites, the Dirty South is exotic in an all too familiar way — whenever pop fans seek “tradition” they flirt with exoticism, which often leads them south, although seldom to a drawl as ripe as Dre’s. Hip hop remains disruptive by definition — even at its hookiest, it looks askance at melody and the white man’s law. But in a year when rock noizetoon went, well, south, it’s fitting that our two hip hop chart-toppers pursued versions of organic r&b; Gang Starr and Black Star also went for a smoothness, leaving Jay-Z and the Beasties together to trickerate the spiky stop-and-go with which so much of the deepest hip hop has complicated its booty-bump. In white people’s music, familiar names sang similar tunes. Faux rapper Beck made a vrai folk record. Hole and Madonna impressed critics who disdained Savage Garden and Will Smith with albums designed for radio — albums that with no atheism aforethought I found barely convincing on their own unexceptionable terms. Liz Phair evolved from iconoclastic indie babe to quirky singer-songwriter and sold zilch, Sheryl Crow evolved from lowbrow singer-songwriter to middlebrow singer-songwriter and sold a million. Garbage’s computer-tooled hooks were marketed as sex toys and swallowed that way. And drummerless R.E.M., charmless Pulp, and boundless Bruce all did what they’d always done, only worse. Either this wasn’t a year when critics wanted to get all bothered, or it wasn’t a year when musicians figured out interesting ways to bother them.

Right right right, the “year” is arbitrary. In 1996, for instance, we had five Brit finishers, in 1997 a whopping 16, in 1998 six — statistics whose cumulative predictive value is approximately zero. And since I’m oversimplifying as usual, let me grant exceptions to the conservative trend. Massive Attack’s mixed-up slow grind Mezzanine and Cornelius’s tripped-out spinfest Fantasma filled in, soulfully or giddily as was required, for two techno heroes I had judged, whoops, “certain to return in 1998” — morose 70th-place Tricky and pretentious 59th-place DJ Shadow (d/b/a Unkle, or UNKLE, told you he was pretentious). The Eels and Vic Chesnutt scored with concept albums, which may not be progress but I guess is art. The worked-over lo-fi songsmanship of Neutral Milk Hotel convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up. The straighter, craftier Quasi and Belle and Sebastian kept up good subcultural fronts; Mercury Rev and the Pernice Brothers conjured pretty from sad; iconic indie babe Chan Marshall was lauded for being less miserable than she used to be, rather than happy or something shallow like that. Black Star were so underground they debuted at 53 in Billboard, subbasement for hip hop even if Air and Rufus never breached the top 200. Ozomatli’s kitchen sink made the world safer for, if not rap-in-Spanglish or rock-en-español, at least rap and salsa on the same CD. Nas’s trumpeter dad Olu Dara performed a similar feat for, omigosh, jazz and r&b. Robert Wyatt schlepped. And Marilyn Manson cracked our chart in the very year he first sported prosthetic breasts.

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Nor was our traditionalists’ fondness for the old ways the stuff of William Bennett’s dreams. Recognizable emotions, tunes you can count on, and a little continuity don’t add up to a blueprint for revanchism. In rock, these preferences — which have no politics no matter what Adorno types think — naturally combine with a chronic attraction to outsiders. So we end up with a faith that what glues the semipopular audience together (and maybe the big one too) is that we’re all a little lost, in life or in love as a synecdoche for same — and our will to defeat that dislocation, in fun first and then, as the fun comes to know itself, art or even community. The terms of this faith may be simplistic — I’ve been kvetching about self-pity and outlaw romanticism since the Beatles said yeah-yeah-yeah, and I still hope Lucinda Williams outgrows her weakness for guys who die before they get old — but they’re not reactionary. As I’ve said before, this is what another Williams, Raymond, called residual culture, preserving as art democratic usages whose human value outlasts their economic fungibility. The techno, alt-rock, and hip hop sectarians who suspect otherwise are kidding themselves. But if people didn’t kid themselves, nobody would ever try anything new — which would mean, oddly enough, that not only would the innovations of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and (in its time) Live 1966 be impossible, so would the reinterpretations of Mermaid Avenue and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

No matter how conservative they are or aren’t, our top four all change the world just by adding something good to it. Hill and Dylan’s flaws as product — the schoolmarm skits that can’t be programmed away, the mannered acoustic set you buy to get the historic electric one — are external to their musical achievement, which is epochal even if Hill doesn’t yet sing or write in Williams’s class. The other two are even better: democratic art music whose very clarity is uncannily evocative. The Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie is a miracle so undeniable it didn’t catch a single dis, the Williams an album-of-the-decade candidate whose perfectionism made my heart swell long after it should have started annoying me instead. And while I also love the way Sonic Youth — who finished a tragic 41st because I shifted two of the points they deserved to a late-breaking Afrocomp that deserved them more — married their restlessness to their concord and made domesticity sound like the adventure it is, I note that even as they refurbished their avant-gardism they were doing a solid for family values. That was the kind of year it was. And though she presents herself as Other, popwise and racewise, Hill expresses thematically, or maybe I should just say verbally, a felt need that’s pursued formally, or maybe I should just say musically, by Williams, Bragg & Wilco (not Guthrie), and Dylan’s faithful (not Dylan, not in 1966).

Perhaps it is finally time to mention what once would have been headline news, which is that our complementary standard-bearers are both women. The 10 female finishers, including nine repeaters and three former poll-winners, fall within what is now Pazz & Jop’s normal range, but the one-two punch is a first. With Williams, always pleased to be one of the boys, gender identity takes the retro taint off — her fanatical integrity, her undaunted autonomy, and the ready empathy she extends to her female characters all testify to the elasticity and life of a deeply male-identified form. But it’s Hill who talks the talk, a talk that wouldn’t have the same knowledge or moral authority if she were a man — Hill whose family values begin with single motherhood, who doowops so sexy as she breaks down that thing, who links her passion for specifics to a cultural tradition she’s proud to name, and who, unfortunately, gives it up to God.

Though the latter has a more honorable history in black pop than in white (Madonna, this means you), that doesn’t mean an atheist has to like it — Al Green she ain’t. But as Madonna knows and Courtney may be figuring out, God sells — a lot better, these days, than the secular aesthetic of homely fact and nailed particularity that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such an inexhaustible pleasure for a this-worlder like me, who would really much rather the best record of the year or decade pointed toward the next one instead of time gone by. In fact, maybe God is the aptest shorthand for that felt need — if you crave something stable to hold onto, many would say there’s none better. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Why is the need there at all?

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Media overload is a reliable excuse. A newer bromide fingers premillennial tension: rather than gliding into the 21st century, some hold, we’re sailing sheets to the wind and scared shitless back toward the 19th. Another would echo William (not to mention Tony) Bennett and blame the very ’60s others resent Lucinda and the rest for reminding them of — after [subtract 1967 and insert result here] years, it is said, even rock and rollers have seen through countercultural license and futuristic foofaraw and long for bedrock values. A less ideological second cousin of this theory would point out that the older the music gets the more adults love it, creating a deepening pool of fans capable of identifying with all the adult rock and rollers who’ve gone before. Having watched I don’t know how many punks and hip hoppers and alt-rockers (although not — yet — techno babies), both personal acquaintances and poll respondents, learn to hear the parent music they once dismissed, I buy that one to an extent. But I would add the less benign corollary of formal exhaustion. Rock and rollers end up recycling the musical past because they have so much trouble conceiving a musical future that doesn’t repeat it — not without trusting experiments so unsongful or sonically perverse that calling them rock and roll will put off the core audience of snobs who might think they’re cool.

Yet although the Monster Magnet thingy is cute, although Pearl Jam and Rancid and Local H did what they’d always done only better (41–50: Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Local H, Pearl Jam’s Yield, Marc Ribot, singles champ Fatboy Slim, Tom Zé, the underappreciated Alanis Morissette, Nick Lowe, and all them McGarrigles), although Alanis’s grand gestures may yet be heard, although some fantasize about glam, although you never know, guitar bands got nowhere looking backward either. By January, corporate revanchism was sending dozens of them scurrying back to the indies. And while a few alt ideologues with long memories (that’s Kurt with a K, chief) noted the structural advantages of this development, none of the aforementioned indie-rock chartbusters provided hope commensurate with their pleasure. Conceivably, the oddball populism of the four-CD Nuggets box that tops our typically product-driven reissues list will bear fruit. When it happens, I’ll let you know.

History did have other uses, however. Elvis Costello’s Burt Bacharach collaboration proved not a fussbudget’s wet dream but his liveliest album since his James Burton collaboration. And while Bacharach is rock and roll by association, our retro progressives unlocked altogether alternative pasts. In the process of concocting the techno album and/or flavor of the year, the flâneurs of Air performed the amazing trick of making loungecore signify for its aperitifs, while Rufus Wainwright went ahead and reimagined American popular song just so he could avoid echoing his famous forebears. And though he hasn’t brought the rehab off yet, I’m predicting that this piano man, opera queen, and born comedian will never front a guitar-driven four-piece — and trusting that our voters will cut him that slack. For even though neither Air nor Wainwright has anything to do with rock and roll, it wasn’t the children of Sondheim and Jonathan Schwartz who cheered them on. It was the rock critic cabal, on the lookout for hot fresh novelty. That’s why I take as a hopeful portent the scant 10 mentions our voters afforded the entire recorded output of the “swing” “movement” art directors so adore.

There is, however, a simpler way out of this latest (not final, surely?) installment of the rock-is-dead saga, and after 20 years of bitching I’m still bummed that our novelty hounds don’t access it more freely. I mean black music, but with Maxwell, Seal, and Kelly Price disappointing their constituencies, black music meant hip hop, at least albumwise. Whatever conservatism the rap on our chart shares with the rock, none of it — including the Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Method Man, Redman, Coup, Public Enemy, and DMX entries that trail down to 100 — evinces comparable cultural desperation or fatigue. This goes beyond the recombinant r&b of Hill, whose great idea was to lively up Afrocentric pieties from gospel to Stevie Wonder into a polyrhythmic pop fusion too beat-savvy for hip hop to resist, and the ATLiens, whose urban swamp boogie is rap-rock every bit as heavy as the bohrium and dubnium compounds hardheads hyped circa 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack. The spare old-school beats of Black Star, for instance, proceed from a first-convolution self-consciousness that suggests not raw punk minimalism but the elegant intelligence of artists secure in a broadly conceived heritage, kinda like early Bonnie Raitt. DMX would be the punk, in the anthemic mode of Sham 69. Pun and Method Man are vocalists first, stylish soul men delivering the goods over new grooves for the ages. Public Enemy’s prophecies are undiminished by their lack of honor in their own country; the Coup’s tales of living unlarge are as thought through and old-fashioned as their beats. Gang Starr are patently proud to show off their skills again. And Jay-Z is as deadly a New Don as rap has ever thrown up.

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Not that I still hope rock critics will take a cue from rock fans and master such distinctions themselves. That would involve enjoying hip hop, in all its…well, its nastiness, its materalism, its sexism, its…socially regressive tendencies! As a proactive white listener for 18 years, I’m not claiming it always comes naturally. Gang Starr’s beats are too subtle to suit me and when Big Punisher guns down two “bitch” “niggas” in his “Packinamac” skit, I hope he gets punished big, though I’d trade that for one less teenager packing a MAC. But even so Capital Punishment stakes a more virtuosic, full-blooded claim for its subculture than, to choose a funereal jape that gets my goat, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Over and over I’m drawn to internalize a world that’s only central to me insofar as I love music (although it would be of concern to me as a citizen regardless) — a world so rich musically, in terms the pop charts make clear many Americans understand, that that’s enough. Granted, it was only a final bout of Pazz & Jop relistening that pushed me up close and personal to OutKast and Jay-Z albums whose skills I’d resisted even after I learned to hear them. But hard-won pleasures are sweet, as I’m doubly aware because the same thing happened with Air, and with so many voters complaining they didn’t know where their next thrill was coming from, their failure to avail themselves of these didn’t just seem, er, racially unadventurous. It seemed critically irresponsible. It seemed chickenshit. It seemed deef.

Or maybe it was merely refined. Just because our panel was more inclusive than ever — up another 12 percent after leaping from 236 to 441 in ’97 — doesn’t mean it was any less refined. No sir. Glom our singles chart, which in the greatest year for pop cheeze in memory ignores such wizzy delights as Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (biggest lies, biggest airplay, one vote) and Next’s “Too Close” (biggest boner, second biggest sales, five votes) in stalwart defense of the high seriousness delivered to the masses by Fastball and Semisonic (albeit typified by Sobmaster Shawn Mullins, whose lament for a rock princess tied for 36th). No point moaning about Public Enemy and Aretha Franklin lingering just below our top 25. My beef is the critics’ hostility to kiddie pop as a site of the artistic excitement that’s so often coextensive with bizmanship. The beat changes, the beat goes on: Dismissing “Too Close” in 1998 is the precise equivalent of dismissing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, and loving the Spice Girls without considering the Backstreet Boys is the most condescending kind of pop-feminist p.c.

Lauryn Hill lost out here as well. “Doo Wop,” her radio-readiest cut as the single continued its evolution toward promotional fiction, was edged out by a hunk of cheeze rather than a work of art, but there’s a crucial similarity. Just as Lucinda Williams’s matrix is the blues, Norman Cook’s is the rap-rock cusp — both are white artists reinterpreting and recycling what they don’t hesitate to identify as black music. “Right about now the funk soul brother,” repeats and repeats and repeats a distinctly black-sounding voice in the greatest techno sucker punch of all time. If you want to unpack the beaty fun of the thing, call Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” an innocent celebration of rock and roll race-mixing — and note that all but one of the few black voters who were charmed enough to list it were what most would call rock and rollers, as opposed to black music specialists. As Miles Marshall Lewis and the “Cracking the Code” comments file illustrate, they often hear these things differently.

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With new hip hop mags everywhere, we didn’t attract enough black voters this year. We never do, for much the same reasons general elections don’t, but 1998 was a little worse. That’s why I didn’t enjoy our neck-and-neck race as much as you might have expected from the 10 bucks I bet back in August on what I still consider a battle between sui generis aesthetic triumph and button-pushing pop-political smarts. Lucinda won clean with an album that deserves every push it can get, but I worried that her victory might be unrepresentative anyhow — even if only of rockcrit’s illusions. And eventually, longtime Pazz & Jopper J.D. Considine’s complaint that there couldn’t possibly be 500 critics who heard as much music as he did inspired me to run a minipoll of a 125-voter panel chosen with three criteria paramount: well-integrated (21 rather than 8 percent black), well-exposed (mostly committed full-timers), and, well, insightful (people I actually want to read). Never mind who was on it. Just believe me when I say that beyond a hip hop surge I had no idea what to expect of their consensus.

Right, Lauryn won. What amazed me, though, was how big she won: so big that when I reduced the black vote to a pre–Civil War zero, she still won. Top 10: Hill, Williams, OutKast, Bragg & Wilco, Air, Dylan, Smith, Harvey, Wainwright, Jay-Z (with Madonna 11th). On the chart: Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy (90th on the real list), Saint Etienne (55th), Tricky, Tori Amos (73rd). Off: Mercury Rev, I-did-too-mention Gillian Welch, Wyatt, Monster Magnet, Pernices, please-don’t-hit-me Marilyn Manson. Despite Mercury Rev, a serious glitch, I prefer this vision of pop ’98, not just because it gave hip hop the hope and respect it earned, but because the writers I want to read usually feel the way departing music editor Eric Weisbard does in his essay — they care about pop. So of course they loved Lauryn Hill.

The problem with this is that critically, as opposed to journalistically, caring about pop is kinda rearguard itself, because pop’s consensus has been seriously weakened by market forces. I’ll continue to bitch about it myself, and conceivably the beat will change yet again. It’s more likely, however, that the monoculture is history. In an era of millisecond information dispersal and electronic boutiques, it’s no surprise that progressive artists whomping the so-called mass into some semblance of unity have fallen from view, or that insinuating pieties play the role of visionary funk, the progressive way to move the populace. But that doesn’t mean Hill’s pop-rap will count for more than any other kind of realized democratic art music in the end.

So la-di-da. Or as the later incarcerated Slick Rick put [it] back when he was billing himself M.C. Ricky D, la-di-da-di.

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

1. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Bob Dylan: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

7. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island)

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

1. Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Skint/Astralwerks)

2. Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic” (Grand Royal)

4. Madonna: “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

5. Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (Atlantic)

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

9. Jay-Z: “Hard Knock Life” (Rock-A-Fella/Def Jam)

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

 

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ONCE IN A LIFETIME

If the shoe-obsessed Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos were able to attend David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s new musical about her life titled Here Lies Love, she’d probably wear fancy high heels for the occasion. But, for the rest of us, comfortable footwear will be more practical as the Public will be transformed into a dance club, where you will move with the actors as they play out the action in a 360-degree scenic and video environment. Big Dance Theater founder Annie-B Parson choreographs; Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) directs the party.

Mondays-Sundays. Starts: April 2. Continues through May 19, 2013

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‘Monsters of Bass Tour Presents FreQ Nasty’

Inexplicably, this night is promising belly-dancing, hula hoops, and face-painting along with visuals from VJ Krunch, Max Nova, Lenkadu and Terri Ferrari. More compelling, presumably, Fiji-born New Zealander, remixer, and Santigold-collaborator FreQ Nasty headlines. His agreeable brand of breakbeat is a stomping, squeaking, genre-bashing road map linking Fatboy Slim, Jacques LeCont, and what he’s referring to as “glitchy drumstep.” With MartyParty and Opiuo.

Sat., March 12, 11 p.m., 2011

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David Byrne and Fatboy Slim Pay Homage to Imelda Marcos

Here Lies Love, conceived and composed by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, features 23 vocalists, 21 of whom are female, and one of whom is David Byrne. (The other dude is Steve Earle.) It narrates, in that usual patchy and nebulous rock-opera way, the childhood, upbringing, ambition, and political career of Imelda Marcos, first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Imelda’s husband, Ferdinand Marcos, declared martial law in 1972 and didn’t relinquish it until 1981, five years before his deposition by the nonviolent People Power Revolution, best remembered by most Americans for its discovery that Ms. Marcos had, in her flight with her husband from the besieged palace, left behind 3,000 pairs of shoes.

The two-CD set doesn’t dramatize all this. What it does, when it’s good, is compassionately illuminate bits and pieces of a life and personality characterized, allegedly, by a goodhearted but worrisome brand of nationalist messianism: “I’m a simple country girl who had a dream.” It’s also exactly the sort of thing you’d expect David Byrne to do in 2010, which is to say it’s ambitious and curious and socially responsible and vaguely annoying. Since the dissolution of Talking Heads, being a Byrne fan has felt like forcing yourself to admire the décor in a series of smaller and smaller rooms. He’s an extremely bright and engaging guy who, left alone, tends to dwindle away within mild, arch art songs; collaborating with Brian Eno for 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, he was more expansive and adventurous than he’d been in decades.

Fatboy Slim helps open Byrne up here, bolstering his stagy, flowery songwriting with drum machines and effects pedals and drunken disco strings, although this isn’t quite the Studio 54 album that’s been advertised. And that musty feeling never quite vanishes. It seems strange to look at an album with 23 singers and complain of a paucity of variety, but Here Lies Love slides from Florence Welch to St. Vincent to Tori Amos to Martha Wainwright to Nellie McKay, and though they all do fine, you wish Byrne had exercised his power as an un-turn-downable Great American Artist and corralled, like, Miley Cyrus or Erykah Badu or Debbie Harry to break up the monolithic program of quietly quirky indie-girls.

The standouts do deviate a little: the squelchy “Eleven Days” (laden with chintzy wah-wah and handed over to Cyndi Lauper), or “Dancing Together” (which Sharon Jones inflates into swaying, tottering faux-soul), or “A Perfect Hand,” (wherein Steve Earle stands out sort of unfairly, just by being the only other guy). The Earle track narrates the couple’s political rise, Imelda campaigning for her husband with breathtaking energy and the sociopathy of a born politician (“If you open the door for a lady/You open the door for yourself”), and it blends well with the idea that she saw herself as synecdoche for her country, the kind of gleaming good intention that hardens into what’s-good-for-me-is-good-for-everyone. But it also makes pervasive use of a hokey playing-card metaphor and dropped-G singing style that’s unmistakably American (“Who’s holdin’ aces/Who’s gonna fold,” etc.), which is, of course, how Steve Earle sings everything. It injects the song with all kinds of shadows of ideas about America and the American politicization of down-and-out, and the parallels between Imelda-Marcos-as-simple-country-girl and, say, the way American politicians seem to spend a lot of time competing to see whose father had the most demeaning job.

Here Lies Love isn’t always this fertile. But the adrift moments are justified by the good ones: Martha Wainwright swaying primly to “The Rose of Tacloban,” Natalie Merchant announcing martial law on “Order 1081,” or Byrne himself popping in for the near-totally-irrelevant and dorky “American Troglodyte.” There are precise and careful images to be found (“It’s amazing how the soldiers all know how to dance/It’s amazing how the soldiers keep the creases in the pants”). And to its earnest, studious, compassionate, occasionally dull credit, it never once mentions shoes.

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HEAD OF THE CLASS

If you could somehow harness the indefatigable energy of artist/musician/author/activist David Byrne, we imagine you could light the whole city with it—and then some. When the former Talking Head isn’t out riding his bike somewhere in the world and convincing you to do the same (see his new book Bicycle Diaries), he’s playing buildings with his ingenious organ, performing sold-out concerts, racking up Grammy nominations (most recently three for Everything That Happens Will Happen Today), and collaborating with countless artists (next month, he and Fatboy Slim release their long-awaited concept album inspired by, oddly enough, Imelda Marcos). Today, he’ll be acting as your art professor at the Bell House, where he’ll give a free video/audio lecture called “Creation in Reverse,” which covers the ways that venue and context shape artistic creation. The talk will be followed by a Q&A session. Our first question: Where do you find the time?

Mon., Jan. 11, 8 p.m., 2010

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GBH’s Decade of Decadence

Party promoters GBH—who started in 1998 as a one-night weekly residency at Great British House, and currently helm three monster dance parties per week (including the flagship Cheeky Bastard, Thursdays at Hiro Ballroom)—turned 10 years old last weekend. To help celebrate, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, MSTRKRFT, and Does It Offend You, Yeah? provided the beats for an intimate crowd of, oh, 2,500 or so at Webster Hall, hosting the fans of Cheeky Bastard, Trashion (Tuesdays at the Inn), Robot Rock (Fridays at Le Royale, my personal favorite of the GBH parties), and the myriad one-offs that New York native Alejandro Torio and British-born Tom Dunkley, GBH’s co-founders, have produced over the years. Late last week, I sat witness to the duo’s charming rapport as they looked back on the last 10 years, discussing the evolution of GBH, the evolution of New York nightlife in general, and the days when Tom was more of a fun drunk.

So tell me the quick history of GBH.

Alejandro: We got our start at Vanity, playing house for around 300 people or so on Friday nights with the big house guys of the time—guys like Roger Sanchez. After a year, we moved to the Cheetah Club, which was maybe a 700-person venue. We were there for two years.

Tom: Then we moved to Centro-Fly, which was the nightclub of the time—it battled a bit with Twilo, which was sort of for the Ecstasy crowd. For another two years, we had crazy shows by the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, the Crystal Method, Dimitri from Paris. And then the big recession hit and house music started dying out, so we moved to Lotus, which had more of a celebrity scene.

Alejandro: It was the original lounge, really—it kicked off that whole meatpacking-district trend.

Tom: And at that point, we sort of went through a reinvention—left house behind, started to focus more on electro and indie rock. And when we left Lotus, we left behind the Friday-night scene, really, until Robot Rock. Now Cheeky Bastard is sort of our marquee party. Are we boring you?

No! So, at this point, can you book pretty much anyone you want?

Tom: We’re in a much better position now, yeah, but I’m not sure anyone can get whomever they want. Booking artists isn’t as easy at you might think—it has so much to do with their availability.

Who hasn’t played one of your parties yet that you’d like to get on board?

Tom: Daft Punk.

Alejandro: I like having DJ sets by guys from great bands— Depeche Mode, New Order. So maybe the lead singer of the Cure.

Tom: Robert Smith.

Alejandro: That’d be cool.

Tell me about your favorite shows of the last 10 years.

Tom: Oh, wow, there have been so many. I remember when Justice played for us at Movido (the original home of Robot Rock) for maybe 150 people. It was before they’d gotten big here, and no one really knew who they were. A bunch of cool French kids came out. It was literally the noisiest show I’ve ever heard. God, the next day—my ears have never hurt that much before in my life.

Alejandro: I remember this one Thanksgiving weekend. It was the day after, a Friday, and there was a huge snowstorm, and I just remember thinking: ‘This is going to kill us. Everyone’s still with their parents, they’re still home eating turkey; we’re screwed.’ And when I showed up to Centro-Fly, there was a line for two blocks. I couldn’t believe it.

Tom: There was also that one-off, maybe seven years ago, with Fatboy Slim.

Alejandro: Oh, that was such a great night. It was the best vibe, in this great loft space. He hardly ever spins here, you know, and it was this crazy crossover crowd. It’s still fresh in my mind. And remember that Groove Armada show at the World Trade Center?

Tom: Oh, yeah. We produced that with Terry Casey, who’s one of the owners of Le Royale.

Alejandro: Everyone was just shakin’ their ass on the top of the World Trade Center. And then, a week later . . .

Tom: It wasn’t a week later.

Alejandro: It was! It was exactly a week later. I remember.

Where are you guys from, anyway?

Tom (in his British accent): Queens.

Alejandro (laughing): He says that because he makes fun of me for being from Queens.

What do you think of the people saying lately that New York isn’t fun anymore—you know, like Amy Sacco and Madonna? How much has nightlife changed since you got your start?

Tom: I think it’s less fun in certain places, but there are a lot more clubs. So many people who appreciate music moved to Brooklyn, you know, so that was a big change. When I moved here from England [12 years ago], I expected New York to just be crazy. And while I’m sure I was missing things then, I feel like now there are just so many more choices. There’s so much more to do now than there was 10 years ago. You just have to dig around.

Would you consider doing a residency in Brooklyn?

Alejandro: The only reason we don’t is just because we’re really, really, really busy in Manhattan.

Anything you miss from when you started 10 years ago?

Alejandro: Tom was more fun then. He was this really big party guy, drank all day—I remember asking someone, “How does he do it?” And they were just like, “He’s English.”

Tom: And Alejandro used to be the straightest guy—but you only ever see him with a bottle of vodka.

Alejandro: Yeah, these days Tom’s stuck in the office while I party.

Tom: Well, someone’s got to do the work around here.

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Rockafeller Skanks and Immanentizing Canucks

New compilations from the unthinking man’s Bill Drummond and the Canadian Franz Ferdinand, who play wherever Molson is sold. Norman “Fatboy Slim” Tarantino was the bassist for Housemartins or Jamiroquai or somebody; as his solo style expanded on that band’s wistful median-walking (i.e., “indie”) rock, FBS remained an obscure cult failure, understood only by fanatical anti-rock extremists, some of whom were so deeply undercover that they are unaware to this day how great, and how like Mao’s hundred blooming flowers, is their rock hatred. Nazareth are mentioned by name on Sleep’s Dopesmoker, and their song “Vancouver Shakedown” is about immanentizing the eschaton. (Vancouver is in “BC”—government phone numbers there start with 666, and you can buy weed over the counter at McDonald’s.)

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1998

  • The Village Voice turns the classified listings into a daily service, putting advertisements online on a rolling basis.
  • Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was named best album and Fatboy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank” was named best single in the Pazz & Jop Music Critic’s poll.
  • Stern Publishing attempts to purchase the Santa Barbara Independent, but the deal falls through during negotiations.
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch wins a special citation at the Obie Awards.
  • The Village Voice wins Planned Parenthood’s Maggie Award.
  • Sex and the City, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, debuts on HBO. The show is hugely popular among women, portraying the lives of four single, successful, sassy New York women who are all over 30 and talk openly about sex and dating.
  • Total Request Live premiers on MTV. The show, recorded live in Times Square and hosted by Carson Daly, plays the top-10 most-requested videos of the day and features screaming teeny-boppers lined up outside the studio.
  • Jerry Saltz joins the Voice as senior art critic.
  • The Village Voice mourns the loss of Ross Wetzsteon, an editor who was for 28 years the chairman and host of the annual Obie Awards.
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    Music

    Four years ago, Fatboy Slim jacked Doug Lazy’s voice, and the jolly hip-house icon never caught a check. He who “Let It Roll” doesn’t catch a break on this mix CD either, but all of his not-quite-rough-enough-for-Edan’s–Fast Rap–tape homies are here: MCs Fast Eddie and KC Flight, producers Strafe and Tyree. “Rap and house is kinda different,” Juice Crew non-biscuit Craig G insists in “Turn That House Into a Home.” “To do this, you must be gifted.” That’s not totally true (this was, after all, the era when MCs stated exactly what they were essaying to do in each song. Meta what? Meta who?), but the swinging style isn’t for everyone, only the sexy people. Special Ed got down, as did Big Daddy Kane (best are the latter-day quick-spitters who get shoehorned in nicely: Rah Digga, Joe Budden, even Cincy arty-partys Five Deez). And Chi-town house dons Adonis and Steve Hurley prove their urban bona fides, though almost no one in New York’s rap world was listening. “I’ll House You” aside, this was music flowing mostly from the outside in, assuring regional marginality despite tristate club saturation. For the record, Ayres swears D.C.’s Doug will eat well on the forthcoming Vol. 2.

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    NY Mirror

    They call the Winter Music Conference the dance music community’s Spring Break, and every March, thousands of New York industry schmucks—including yours truly—head down to South Beach to “work.”

    The New York-based label Astralwerks got everyone off to a dizzy start Saturday night at the Astralwerks Beach Party, where Chicago DJs Sneak and Felix da Housecat were spied taking in the sounds of Cassius and Daft Punk. Felix, whose new CD, Kittenz and Thee Glitz, is getting much buzz, was seen gabbing with a line of well-wishers as long as the one to get in. Headliner Fatboy Slim was late (as usual), not because of any misbehavior (no plunger on the head or anything) but because of a delayed flight. He arrived in the nick of time, but, alas, he played the same set three times in a row at his various conference gigs.

    Stupid Stuff magazine took over the Nash hotel, hosting the most annoying, but “cool” events of the conference (where everyone stands around, looking good, drinking free alcohol, and completely ignoring the music). The rude bwoys guarding the door of Lil’ Louie Vega’s shindig turned us away, which was even more infuriating because the bouncers didn’t even know who the Master at Work was. Duh.

    Later, at local promotion crew Giant Step’s schmoozy, lifeless party way over on the other side of the world (OK, it was just on South Beach’s west end at Monty’s on the Bay), I ran into Talking Loud founder Gilles Peterson, cute and boyish as ever, leaving the party clutching records. Lady Bunny seemed strangely out of place, sitting by herself in an overdone black-and-white getup, wearing too much makeup and her traditional wasted-Peggy Lee wig. Turns out she’s plugging her new disc with New York house producer DJ Disciple.

    Claiming to be celebrating 19 years on the planet, new wave whore Tommie Sunshine threw a star-studded, debauched b-day party Sunday afternoon at the Studio, which was crawling with pasty-faced people with dyed-black hair—so you knew they must be from Detroit. Summer Forest, producer of the rave documentary Rise and co-author of Searching for the Perfect Beat: Flyer Designs of the American Rave Scene, scampered about during a tag-team set by “mature couple” Nicola Kuperus and Adam Le Miller, a/k/a Adult, the latter donning a Black Flag T-shirt. So punk rock. New York’s everyman John Selway danced to a set by Brendan Gillen of Ectomorph. The Detroit electro artist had everybody jumping with a mix of Laid Back’s “White Horse” and Prince’s “Erotic City.”

    New York promotion and record company Matter/:Form hosted a very U.K. lineup featuring tech-house gods Terry Francis, Mr. C, and Layo and Bushwacka—who smashed it up. Promoter Elan Akerman, displaying his usual humility, shouted, “I’m sorry, but we’ve got the best lineup of the whole conference.” No argument here.

    Back to Stuff Hotel for the Southern Fried Cooking party with Fatboy Slim, Lottie, and Scanty Sandwich. Trance superstars Sasha and John Digweed cruised around the throng—which included the newly anointed Spin editor in chief Sia Michel. Playboy Sasha appeared a bit bleary-eyed (long night, dear?).

    Over at the DanceStar USA awards, Astralwerks artist Fatboy Slim won two trophies, but when Label of the Year was announced, no representatives from Astralwerks were on hand to accept. Ooops.

    Monday’s Naked Music party at the Nikki Beach club featured Miguel Migs, Lazy Dog, and chanteuse Lisa Shaw. New York techno promoter-DJ Kimyon, modeling a fashionable Fred Flintstone T-shirt, brandished some exclusive white labels like the spoiled boy that he is.

    Vice magazine’s sleazy electro party found suddenly famous electro geeks John Selway, Brendan Gillen, and Felix Da Housecat wandering around the scummy Vegas Cabaret Club while third-rate strippers with third-rate boob jobs ground their pussies into third-rate men. DJ Hell played Nitzer Ebb’s “Join in the Chant” and Miss Kittin was a no-show, missing two flights from Paris for no reason at all. Bummer for the sad girl walking around in a rubber nurse’s outfit. Outside, Felix sat on a bus-stop bench. “It’s your year!” I told him. He blushed and gave me a 12-inch of “Silver Screen Shower Scene,” and warned, “Now, I better not see that in the gutter.”

    A cocky man with a cockney accent working the door at the Triple5Soul and Fader magazine party with Jazzanova, Jazzy Jeff, and ?estlove, yelled that all the artists had already performed (at 2:30 a.m.!?) and the list was closed. Thanks, but no thanks, you British wanker. Big-shot promoter Matt E. Silver and his buddy Nick Butterworth, formerly of Sonic Net, had no problem getting in. Both rolled in and quickly rolled out. “Eh, it was nothing,” said Silver.

    Roni Size spun soulful d’n’b at a Tuesday-morning brunch hosted by Formula PR while Campari girls shimmied to the beat in the penthouse suite. Fabulous life, isn’t it—getting paid to wear red rubber hot pants and black leather boots and drink hard alcohol at noon? Size had gotten some, ahem, “assistance” and had danced to Danny Tenaglia from 8 a.m. till he showed up at his own gig five hours later. (“It was tribal, man—deep!!” he shouted.) Also seen at Danny’s gig at Space (everyone referred to him by first name only, like a best buddy): Carl Cox, who took his usual spot on the speakers and pumped his fist in the air. Yoko Ono made an appearance at around the same time most people are waking up and having their morning coffee. Said Mixer mag editor M. Tye Comer, who bought a new pair of silver sneakers especially for the occasion: “She did her little caterwaul thing over the Orange Factory remix of her ‘Open Your Box,’ and told the crowd ‘Boys, take off your shirts and take off your pants so I can come all over you.’ ” Okaaay. Unfortunately, Liquid Sound Lounge’s Jeannie Hopper didn’t spin the outside area this year, but she is getting her own monthly residency in London, at a new club called, ironically, Bridge and Tunnel.

    Caught a little drum’n’bass action at Tanja, where High Contrast, a 21-year-old upstart from Cardiff, Wales, displayed beautiful mixing skills and a great selection of housey drum’n’bass. The d’n’b mafia showed up by the time Goldie (who, by the way, has finally figured out how to match a beat) got on the decks. Seen: Roni Size getting jiggy with it; Metalheadz’ Bailey chatting up the ladies, Urb magazine publisher Raymond Roker grooving with his girlfriend, Delmar and Empress hanging with newly blond and lovely new New Yorker Siren, and Grooverider and Fabio chillin’ during fellow Brits John B and SS’s sets. Ever the househead, Size left to check out Lil’ Louie Vega at the Magic Sessions.Hopper joined promoter/DJ Neil Aline at the Chez/Wave party later at Rain, which was a smashing success, with all manner of hipsters shakin’ it to Roy Davis Jr. and Francois K. Hopper pointed out a very large man in the crowd, “Could it be E-man?” she asked with a wink. (It was.)

    At some point (it’s all a blur), I spotted a handmade cardboard sign outside Bash with “DJ SNEAK AND DERRICK CARTER TONIGHT!” scrawled in magic marker. I stared in disbelief, I thought it must be a hoax, since I missed the party in my DJ Prince/Flyer magazine guidebook. When I realized the large, jolly Sneak was standing next to the tattered sign like an in-person advertisement, I took that as confirmation. It turned out to be the undiscovered jewel of the conference with a not-too-crowded dancefloor filled with clubbers dancing their asses off, including New York’s biggest rave promoter Chris Stuck on Earth shaking his groove thang way in the front row to Carter’s set and glamorous house diva Miss Honey Dijon sticking it out till the very end.

    John Selway gets the award for Biggest Conference Partier: He jumped from Carter/Sneak to next door at Goddess (again, goddammit) for the stuffed-to-the-gills OM bash. S.F. diva, Charlotte the Baroness was seen looking distressed at the door; apparently a fight had broken out between party organizers, resulting in one man getting thrown out. New York junglist/downtempo DJ Swingsett staggered around to New York deep-house DJ John Howard’s closing set, exclaiming, “I’ve smoked enough cigarettes to kill ten men!”

    The young and the restless headed for the beach to watch the sunrise, including New York writer/promoter/DJ/professional schmoozer David Prince, Girlie Action publicity princess Vickie Starr, ex–Astralwerks/Urb editor Todd Roberts, and Flyer mag editor Hosi Simon. You can be sure they were all incredibly hard at work.

    Next week:
    What fallen club owner is planning to open a new nightclub? And no, it’s not Peter Gatien.